Two Definitions of Wisdom
Let’s start a series of commentaries on a book by René Brouwer, an assistant professor at the School of Law at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, entitled The Stoic Sage: The Early Stoics on Wisdom, Sagehood and Socrates (Cambridge Press). It’s a bit technical, and not cheap at $56 for the Kindle edition and a whopping $90 for the hardcover, but it’s worth discussing a number of chapters from it, beginning with the first one, where Brouwer introduces two definitions of wisdom.
The Stoics thought of wisdom as (i) “knowledge of human and divine matters,” and (ii) as “fitting expertise.” The first definition actually became commonplace in the ancient world, but Brouwer says that the Stoics were the first ones to use that particular articulation, and he begins his discussion with it: “the three elements in it — i.e. knowledge, human matters and divine matters — can be connected to the three parts of philosophical discourse as distinguished by the Stoics — i.e. logic, ethics and physics.” In other words, there is a direct connection between the Stoic concept of wisdom and the three topoi of Stoic philosophy.
A major source for attributing the first definition of wisdom to the Stoics is Plutarch, and it’s a near perfect summary of the basic Stoic ideas about wisdom, the nature of philosophy, and the topoi:
“The Stoics said that wisdom is knowledge of human and divine matters, and philosophy exercise of fitting expertise; the single and supremely fitting expertise is excellence, and excellences at their most general are three: in nature, in behavior, in reasoning. For this reason philosophy is also divided into three parts: physical, ethical and logical. Physical is when we investigate the world and the matters in the world, ethical is that which is occupied with human life, logical is that concerned with reasoning — the last they also call dialectical.” (Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta 2.35)
The division of philosophy in the three topoi is also quintessentially Stoic, according to Brouwer, and is found especially in Diogenes Laertius’ commentary:
“They say that philosophical discourse has three parts: the physical, the ethical and the logical part.” (SVF 2.37)
As is well known, physics is concerned with the study of how the world is, logic with the study of reason, and ethics with the study of how to live. But how, exactly, are the three topoi related to the first Stoic definition of wisdom?
Here is Brouwer: “With ethics as the part concerned with life and the things that relate to us, human matters [in the definition] can easily be understood as a reference to ethics. With regard to physics as ‘the part concerned with [the] cosmos and the things in it’, the link with the divine matters in the definition of wisdom may at first seem more obscure than in the case of ethics. This is not so, though: according to standard Stoic doctrine nature or the cosmos is divine or even identified with god. Dialectic and knowledge are perhaps at first sight less easy to connect [but] the Stoics included the theory of knowledge in dialectic, even agreeing among themselves that the theory of knowledge should be ‘placed first.’”
So to recap: knowledge [logic] of human [ethics] and divine [physics] matters.
Brouwer then engages in an interesting discussion concerning the relationship between Stoic physics and ethics, dissecting the available sources about the famous Stoic dictum, “live according to nature.”
Diogenes Laertius, in this regard, says that:
“Zeno in his On the Nature of Man was the first to say that the end was to live in consistency with nature.” (SVF 1.179)
The book title itself clearly singles out human nature, though Epictetus later on said that Zeno was talking about universal nature. Cleanthes, Zeno’s successor as the head of the Stoa, spoke of living “in consistency with nature,” by which he seems to have understood cosmic nature. As for Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoa, DL says that:
“By the nature with which our life ought to be in accord Chrysippus understands both common nature and in a special sense human nature.” (SVF 3.4)
Either way, Stoic physics is obviously relevant to its ethics, because at a minimum the idea is that in order to figure out the best way to live one has to have some understanding of how the world works, including a good comprehension of human nature. The emperor Julian the Apostate wrote about this:
“That [the students of the man from Citium] made ‘know thyself’ into the main point of their philosophy, you may believe, if you will, not only from the things which they brought up in their writings, but even more so by the end of their philosophy: for they made the end living in consistency with nature, which cannot be achieved if one does not know who one is, and of what nature one is; for someone who does not know who he is, will surely not know what he ought to do.” (Orations 6.6)
Or, as modern Stoic Larry Becker puts it in his A New Stoicism, living according to nature can simply be understood in modern terms as “follow the facts [about the world and humanity].”
I find what Brouwer says immediately afterwards rather interesting, and departing from what I think is common understanding among most modern Stoics: “As with knowledge, the Stoics understood excellence both in cognitional and in dispositional terms, and they furthermore placed human excellence, as a character, in the wider context of the nature of the whole. … The standard modern translation of arete as ‘(moral) virtue’ is often less appropriate, as it suggests a restriction of its usage to ethics. The Stoics also used the term in a broader sense, and did not restrict its usage to the moral virtues.”
This being the case, then, Stoic excellence is to be understood both in the specific moral sense and in the broader human sense, outside the moral sphere. Brouwer elaborates: “Logic as an excellence, according to Cicero, provides a method of reasoning that guards against assenting to incorrect impressions. … Physics is an excellence, too: without an explanation of the natural world justice towards other human beings and piety towards the gods is impossible.” So a good Stoic does not want to excel only at the moral virtues, or in the practice of ethics, but also in the other two topoi, if nothing else because those are instrumental for the pursuit of the third one.
Brouwer then shifts to considering more in detail the second definition of wisdom given above: fitting expertise. He begins by citing Galen:
“Others defined philosophy as the exercise of fitting expertise of the best life for human beings, saying that philosophy is exercise, and calling wisdom fitting expertise, which is also a cognition of human and divine matters.” (On the History of Philosophy, 5, 602.19-3.2)
It is interesting, as Brouwer notes, to recall that early definitions of philosophy, as in Herodotus and Heraclitus, framed it as loving wisdom, whereby the “lover” (i.e., the philosopher) already possess it. It is Plato that shifts to what then became the standard take, philosophy understood more modestly as striving toward wisdom.
Going back to the (second) definition of wisdom itself, Brouwer goes along with Long and Sedley’s interpretation, that it is a shorthand for “expertise of what is really useful.” A further elaboration is found in Seneca (Letter 88.26.7) where he presents a picture of different types of expertise as instances of “knowing how” (to play an instrument, to solve a geometrical problem, etc.), with wisdom being a superior type of “knowing why,” that is, knowing when and how to use every other kind of knowledge.
A further explanation of what “fitting expertise” means is given by Olympiodorus:
“Cleanthes, then, says that an expertise is ‘a tenor that accomplishes everything methodically.’ But this definition is considered to be incomplete, for nature is also a tenor that does methodically all it does. Accordingly Chrysippus, after adding the phrase ‘with impressions,’ said ‘an expertise is a tenor that proceeds methodically with impressions’.” (SVF 1.490)
“Tenor,” explains Brouwer, is a technical term that refers to an enduring disposition. What Chrysippus is saying, then, is that wisdom is the ability to correctly interpret impressions. That is why, centuries later, Epictetus insisted that the most important thing to do for a student of Stoicism is to improve her faculty of judgment (prohairesis), i.e., the very faculty by which we assess (and give or refuse assent to) impressions:
“What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions — reason.” (Discourses I, 1.5)
By the end of the chapter, Brouwer concludes that the two Stoic definitions of wisdom are remarkably convergent, and that “the activity that goes with the exercise of (or the search for) this expertise is called physics when we investigate the world and the things in the world, ethics when we occupy ourselves with human life, and logic (or dialectic) when we deal with reason as such.”
How to Transition to Sagehood
While discussing René Brouwer’s The Stoic Sage: The Early Stoics on Wisdom, Sagehood and Socrates (Cambridge Press), we have encountered the two Stoic definitions of wisdom: (i) “knowledge of human and divine matters,” and (ii) “fitting expertise.” In chapter 2, Brouwer turns to the issue of what happens when someone transitions into sagehood. A note of caution: according to Seneca, this event (if it occurs at all) is as rare as the mythical bird, the phoenix, i.e., it takes place every half millennium or so. The chances you’ll personally achieve sagehood, therefore, ain’t that high. Still, I think that if one is interested in Stoic philosophy this is a topic worth briefly discussing.
Plutarch (who was not particularly sympathetic to the Stoics, and whose writings need, therefore, be interpreted with caution) says in “How a man may become aware of his progress in wisdom,” with barely veiled sarcasm:
“The sage changes in a moment or a second of time from the lowest possible inferiority to an unsurpassable character of virtue; and all his vice, of which he has not over a long time succeeded in removing even a small part, he instantaneously flees forever.” (Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta, 3.539).
If taken seriously, this makes the transition to sagehood sound very much like revelation for a Christian (say, on the way to Damascus), or enlightenment for a Buddhist, with the difference that the source of the Christian transformation is external, while for both Stoics and Buddhists it is internal. It is also irreversible, as I think it is in Buddhism, but not necessarily in Christianity (where one can lose one’s way; perhaps precisely because the transformation was triggered from the outside in the first place?).
Much of Brouwer’s discussion here is based on the Synopsis of “The Stoics talk More Paradoxically than the Poets,” again by Plutarch. According to Plutarch’s Synopsis, then, two things immediately characterize the transition to sagehood: its speed, and the fact that it is a change between opposite states (vice and virtue).
The Synopsis also states that the Sage may be ugly rather than beautiful, and a beggar rather than a rich king. So don’t expect wisdom to correspond to external attributes, such as beauty and wealth or power.
Moreover, the Sage does not hold “opinions,” meaning changeable convictions about whatever matters he contemplates. That is because he has reached the pinnacle of human epistemic power: he does not have superhuman knowledge, but does have the best knowledge any human being can possibly achieve. His cognition, so to speak, is stable. Needless to say, from a contemporary standpoint this is simply nonsense, and it should be abandoned by modern Stoics. There is no human ideal of knowledge because knowledge is always context-dependent, and moreover it encompasses far too much for a single human mind to actually hold and comprehend. On these bases alone we may conclude that Sagehood — if so defined — is not just rare, it is unachievable.
Interestingly, Plutarch says — and Brouwer confirms that this is found also in other ancient texts on the topic — that the Sage is not “like” Zeus, he actually is divine. As Sextus Empiricus puts it, in his non-Stoic friendly “Against the Professors” (7.423):
“According to them [i.e. the Stoics] the sage possesses an infallible criterion, which makes him in all respects divine because he never holds opinions, that is assents to what is false, wherein lies the height of unhappiness and the ruin of the inferior person.”
This may struck the modern reader as just bizarre, until we remember that the Stoics did not literally believe in the Olympian gods, as for them god was the same as nature itself. And human beings participate in the Logos, so they are, in a sense, divine. Brouwer again: “Chrysippus explains in allegorical fashion that not only the Olympian gods such as Zeus, Ares and Hephaistos are to be ‘assimilated’ to, respectively, reason that rules over everything, war or the principle of order and disorder, and fire, but also that the sun and moon are gods. What we thus seem to have is an interpretation of the gods of traditional religion in terms of natural phenomena and an interpretation of natural phenomena in terms of the divine.” Ancient Stoicism, in other words, was pantheistic.
A further characteristic of the transition to sagehood is its radical nature. That is because the ancient Stoics maintained that there is nothing between vice and virtue, and that all bad deeds are equal. (I commented on this strange idea before, in terms of the famous drowning man metaphor.) Another way to explain this is summarized by Brouwer in this fashion: “According to Chrysippus in his fourth book Ethical Questions [see Diogenes Laertius 7.120, SVF 3.356], just as it does not matter whether the pilgrim is a hundred or a few miles away from Canopus [a sanctuary in the Nile delta which flourished in the third century BCE], as they are both not in Canopus, so it does not matter whether one makes a big or a small mistake: in either case, one is not virtuous.”
Well yes, technically, but really, the only charitable interpretation we can give of this, and the only reason we may entertain retaining this notion in modern Stoicism, is as a call for humility, along the Christian lines of “we are all sinners.” If taken literally, the analogy has very little force.
What about logic and knowledge? As we have seen above, the transition to sagehood also means that the Sage no longer holds to mere opinions, he actually has knowledge based on stable cognition. But even this is open to dispute, as Brouwer reminds us of the famous (and actually useful, I think) analogy of the hand: “Zeno is said to have compared the open palm of his hand with an impression, the fingers of his hand a bit contracted with assent to the impression, his fingers made into a fist with a cognition and the tight and forceful gripping of his other hand over the fist with knowledge.” It’s a “handy” (literally!) reminder, worth spelling out in sequence:
Open palm = Impression
Contracted fingers = Assent to the impression
Fist = cognition (which, however, may be unstable, if one is not a Sage)
Other hand over fist = knowledge (i.e., stable cognition, typical only of the Sage)
Finally, there is yet another weird thing about the Stoic Sage: he may be unaware of actually having achieved sagehood! Philo of Alexandria writes:
“They say that it is impossible that those people who have reached the highest wisdom and touched upon its borders for the first time, know their own perfection; for the two things do not happen at the same time, namely the arrival at the border and the cognition of arrival; in between the two there is ignorance of such a sort that is not far removed from knowledge, but close to it and on its doorstep.” (SVF 3.541)
Brouwer elaborates: “wisdom consists in the special disposition of character. As this disposition is the (only) condition for wisdom, the virtuous (or expert) disposition of the Sage need not be accompanied by the awareness of the fact that it is a virtuous disposition.”
This sounds to me rather odd, but I do wonder whether a Buddhist practitioner knows he has achieved enlightenment at the very moment he has, or whether a Christian mystic is aware of a state of divine bliss as it begins. Perhaps, again, the difference lies in whether the transition is triggered externally or the result of an internal change?
The Stoics tried to explain this by way, as usual, of an analogy. Let’s say you have been practicing for a long time a particular craft, for instance playing the flute. It is possible that you achieve “perfection” (whatever that means) at that craft without — again, initially — realizing it. Does it matter? No, because the earliest known characterization of wisdom, Brouwer tells us, goes back to Homer, and it implies that it is the mastery that counts, not the awareness of it.
Despite all the problematic aspects outlined above of the transition to sagehood, Brouwer concludes that in a very important sense the Sage remains a human being: “the sage is in a way ordinary, in the sense that he remains doing what he did before, that is judging each impression and placing it in the overall scheme of things. As it turns out, Stoic wisdom is very much a this-worldly affair: the person who becomes a Sage, will continue to live life as he did before, dealing with judging impressions.”
Becoming a Sage is, in effect, a type of initiation. In the Great Etymological Dictionary edited in 1848 by T. Gaisford, and cited by Brouwer, we find:
“Chrysippus says that the doctrines [logoi] on divine things are rightly called initiations: for these should be the last things to be taught, when the soul has found its stability and has become in control, and is capable of keeping silent [amuetous] towards the uninitiated. For it is a great reward to hear the correct things about the gods and to gain control.”
Notice the reference to “keeping silent to the uninitiated,” which sounds very much like it reflects some mystical approach to knowledge. Brouwer’s comment is intriguing: “Chrysippus apparently considered it prudent that the real truth about the nature of the gods should be kept secret. Chrysippus does not tell us why, but a suggestion is that bringing out truths that reduce the traditional gods to a force in nature did not go down well with the traditional supporters of Athenian civic religion.” This is a tantalizing hint that the Stoics, while not atheists, were potentially considered “impious” by the standards of their culture. And you know what happened to Socrates when that charge was raised against him…
Was There Ever a Sage?
The Philosopher at Delphi, a Sage?
Let’s continue our discussion of René Brouwer’s The Stoic Sage: The Early Stoics on Wisdom, Sagehood and Socrates (Cambridge Press) with a look at the third chapter of the book, on whether the Stoics thought the Sage was a real thing or just a hypothetical. Again, in a sense this series is truly more “academic” than practical, since none of us will likely become a Sage anyway. That said, the Stoic Sage is what we aspire to, akin to the Enlightened Buddha, for instance, so it’s interesting to learn what the ancients thought of the whole idea.
So, did the ancient Stoics actually consider themselves Sages? According to 19th century scholar S. Hirzel, Zeno and Cleanthes — the first and second head of the Stoa — did, but Chrysippus distanced himself from such claims, and came to consider both his predecessors as very wise, but not quite Sages. We shall see below that there is ample doubt that Hirzel got it right about Zeno and Cleanthes, but regarding specifically Chrysippus here is what Plutarch (a critic of Stoicism) says:
“What is more, Chrysippus does not proclaim himself or any of his own acquaintances or teachers a sage.” (On Stoic Contradictions, Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta 3.662)
A lot of what we know about how the early Stoics thought of Sagehood comes from Sextus Empiricus’ Against the Professors, also hostile to Stoicism, so that its pronouncements need to be taken with a grain or two of salt. Here is a taste:
“According to the Stoics themselves, Zeno and Cleanthes and Chrysippus and the others from their school are reckoned among the inferior persons [i.e., non-Sages], and every inferior person is ruled by ignorance. … Chrysippus either knew this dogma, being a Stoic one, I mean ‘The inferior person is ignorant of all things,’ or he did not know this. And if he knew it, then it is false that the inferior person is ignorant of everything; for Chrysippus, being an inferior person, knew this very thing — that the inferior person is ignorant of all things.”
The second part of this is a straightforward attempt at logical “gotcha!” on the part of Sextus, but of course it is not wise to interpret the Stoics’ “dogma” (which was the word used for philosophical tenet, or belief) in a literal sense. To say that we are all ignorant is something very akin to the Socratic idea that we are all unwise. It is more charitable, and useful, to treat it as a call to epistemic modesty.
Diogenes of Babylon, a Stoic, says in fragment 32 that while gods (i.e., nature, the cosmos) are of such a nature that they necessarily exist, this does not apply to the nature of the Sage. In a sense, the Sage is a theoretical possibility, but does not have to be realized in any specific instance. Sextus confirms this, when he says: “up till now their Sage has not been found” (SVF 3), all of which would seem to flatly contradict Hirzel’s conclusions about Zeno and Cleanthes, which were based on guesswork and a psychological argument about how Zeno could most convincingly present his new philosophy to the public (as in “hey, come over here! I’m a Sage!).
Cicero too doubts the existence of the Sage:
“It happens more often that a mule begets than that a Sage comes into existence.” (On Divination 2.61)
And he states the same opinion again while providing a description of the Sage in his Tusculan Disputations:
“The man in whom there shall be perfect wisdom — whom until now we have not seen, but what he will be like, if he will come into existence one day, has been described in the doctrines of the philosophers — this person then or such reason that will be perfect and absolute in him.” (2.51)
And here is Seneca, also disputing the existence of Sages:
“Yet I would not prescribe that you are to follow, or attach to yourself, no one but a Sage. For where do you find him, whom we sought for so many centuries? Choose as the best the least bad.” (On Tranquillity 7.4)
Then again, Seneca seems to edge his bets a bit:
“There is no reason for you to say, Serenus, as your habit is, that this wise man of ours is nowhere to be found. He is not a fiction of us Stoics, a sort of phantom glory of human nature, nor is he a mere conception, the mighty semblance of a thing unreal, but we have shown him in the flesh just as we delineate him, and shall show him — though perchance not often, and after a long lapse of years only one. For greatness that transcends the limit of the ordinary and common type is produced but rarely. But this self-same Marcus Cato, the mention of whom started this discussion, I almost think surpasses even our exemplar.” (On Constancy 7.1)
Marcus Cato is, of course, Cato the Younger, Seneca’s favorite role model, whom he mentions frequently in his writings (here is a compendium of the best quotes). There are other reports that seem to state that the Sage is rare, but real, for instance this bit from the Aristotelian Alexander of Aphrodisias:
“There have been just one or two good men, as is fabulously related by them, like some absurd and unnatural creature rarer than the Ethiopians’ phoenix.” (SVF 3.658)
Seneca had also, previously, compared the Sage to the phoenix:
“For one of the first class [i.e., a Sage] perhaps springs into existence, like the phoenix, only once in five hundred years.” (Letter 42.1)
Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic are often held up as Sages, but there is no straightforward evidence that the Stoics themselves thought so. For instance, Diogenes Laertius writes rather ambiguously:
“Posidonius in his first book On Ethics says that evidence for virtue existing is the fact that (those around?) Socrates, Diogenes and Antisthenes got to a state of progress.” (Lives 7.91)
Just because those “around” Socrates, Diogenes, and Antisthenes made progress it doesn’t mean that these three were actually Sages. There is, however, according to Brouwer, evidence that the Stoics identified some mythological characters with the Sage (and notice, again, the reference to Cato):
“The immortal gods had given us in Cato a more assured example of the wise man than Odysseus and Hercules in earlier centuries. For we Stoics have proclaimed that these were wise men, not being conquered by effort, despising pleasure, and victorious over the whole world.” (Seneca, On Constancy 2.1)
I have written about Odysseus as a Stoic role model, but here Seneca actually makes him into a Sage, which is above the role of a simple role model. Then again, notice how often the Sage is talked about in mythological terms (the phoenix, Odysseus, Heracles…).
A bit more practical matter is the relation between Sagehood and truth. The Stoics, subtle logicians and dialecticians that they were, made an interesting distinction according to Brouwer: “The Stoics said that truth belonged to the Sage exclusively, whereas the true can belong to the Sage and the inferior person alike.” This is interesting because it says that we mere mortals can aspire to discovering true things, even though only the perfectly wise person has unshakable knowledge. The rest of us will have to be content with propositions that we believe are true but may need to be revised. I’ll take it! Brouwer summarizes the idea in this way: “the Stoics distinguished sharply between cognitions, on the one hand, and stable cognitions or knowledge, on the other. Just as an inferior person can at times say something true, he can at times have a cognition. Just as an inferior person has no truth, he has no stable cognitions.”
Here is another passage that further elucidates early Stoic thought, this time by Quintilian, in his Institutions:
“I will respond to those who ask if they [Cicero and Demosthenes] were orators, in the manner in which the Stoics would reply, if asked whether Zeno, Cleanthes and Chrysippus themselves were Sages. I shall say that these men were important and worthy of our veneration, but that they did not achieve what is the highest in the nature of man. For did not Pythagoras desire that he should not be called a wise man, like the sages who preceded him, but rather a lover of wisdom (studiosum sapientiae)?” (SVF 1.44)
This, incidentally, is one of the early references to the very definition of a philosopher as lover of wisdom, or studiosum sapientiae in Latin. And here is an Epicurean telling us that the Stoics didn’t think of themselves as Sages:
“[The Stoics described] him [Zeno] as great, as the founder of their school, but not wise.” (Philodemus, On the Stoics col. 14.19–22)
Note, incidentally, that Epicurus did consider himself a Sage, so Philodemus here is making a dig at the Stoics for not having any Sages in their ranks.
Finally, the next quote is one of my favorite stories in Stoic lore, and it comes to us from Diogenes Laertius:
“One day a conversation took place on whether the wise man would hold opinions, and Sphaerus said that he would not. Wishing to refute him, the king ordered wax pomegranates to be placed before him. Sphaerus was deceived and the king cried out that he had given his assent to a false impression. Sphaerus gave him a shrewd answer, saying that his assent was not [to the impression] that they were pomegranates but [to the impression] that it was reasonable that they were pomegranates. He pointed out that the cognitive impression is different from the reasonable one.” (Lives 7.177)
This is both very shrewd, as Diogenes observes, and in fact an excellent explanation of the Stoic doctrine that there is a difference between reasonable judgments on impressions and truth. Again, the latter is obtained only by the (possibly mythological) Sage. Sphaerus here has cognition, but not “stable” cognition, i.e., knowledge. Given that, then there is hope for the rest of us too.
Stoics vs. Epicureans
Epicurus (left) vs Zeno (right)
Last installment of my discussion of René Brouwer’s The Stoic Sage: The Early Stoics on Wisdom, Sagehood and Socrates (Cambridge Press). I will focus here on the final section of the fourth chapter of the book, which features a very revealing and harsh controversy between the Stoics and their cousins, the Epicureans. It will illuminate the figures of Socrates and Epicurus, the nature of wisdom, and the difference between the two schools of thought.
Simply put: while for the Stoics Socrates was a role model, and arguably the closest thing to an actual Sage, the Epicureans despised the fellow, accusing him of lying and positively getting in the way of people’s ability to achieve eduaimonia. What the hell?
To begin with, even the very existence of this controversy, as Brouwer reminds his readers, is further confirmation of the centrality of Socrates’ figure for all Hellenistic philosophies. Love him (the Stoics) or despise him (the Epicureans), he was the point of reference against which one had to measure one’s philosophy.
To give you a taste of the sharpness of the exchanges, consider that the Epicurean Colotes argued in his not ironically titled “On the Point that it is Impossible Even to Live According to the Doctrines of the Other Philosophers” that the Socratic injunction to “know thyself,” that is, the quest for self-knowledge, leads to “the collapse of life … it is these enormities in the Phaedrus [Plato’s dialogue] that bring our affairs into disorder.”
Plutarch, who was a Platonist, not a Stoic, in turn wrote an entire book entitled “Against Colotes,” where he stated that it is simply hard to see how asking questions like “what am I?” May possibly lead to something so catastrophic as the collapse of life. On then contrary:
“[Socrates] cleared life from madness and confusion, and from burdensome and excessive illusions about oneself and arrogance.” (Against Colotes, 1118F)
What, exactly, was Colotes’, and the Epicureans in general, problem with Socrates? They argued that he said one thing and practiced another, because he claimed to know nothing, and yet he clearly did know certain things. They deduced from this that Socrates did not wish to share his wisdom with people whom he should have treated as friends. This sort of behavior, in turns, makes the (Epicurean!) ideal life of shared friendship impossible.
Interestingly, by the way, Plutarch does not mention the Stoics in his rebuttal to the Epicureans, and Brouwer suggests that this was a shrewd move on his part: he could therefore project the impression that it was the Platonists, not the Stoics, who were the true inheritors of Socrates’ legacy.
Epicurus went further than some of his disciples in setting up a contrast between himself and Socrates. He broke the “taboo” against not declaring oneself a Sage and did just that, implying therefore that he — again, unlike Socrates — was imparting wisdom to his students. We have confirmation of this both in passages from Plutarch, where he quotes Metrodorus, one of Epicurus’ students, and from Cicero, who states the same in both On Ends (II.7):
“[Epicurus] is the only one, as far as I know, who has dared to present himself as a Sage.”
And in On Old Age (43):
“[Gaius Fabricius Luscinus] used to marvel at the story … that there was a man at Athens who professed himself a Sage, and said that everything we do should be judged by the standard of pleasure.”
Epicurus’ barbs were apparently directed specifically at the Stoics: he positioned himself as a Sage and anti-Socratic, in sharp contrast to the Stoic view that we should search for wisdom precisely by patterning our efforts after the example of Socrates.
The Stoics in turn made their own, and elaborated upon, Socrates’ definition of wisdom: knowledge of human and divine matters. As we have seen at the beginning of our discussion of Brouwer’s book, this means knowledge of how to live (human matters) and of how the world works (divine matters). That’s why there is no contradiction, pace the Epicureans, between Socrates’ profession of ignorance (in the specific sense of lack of wisdom, the relevant word is amathia) and his acknowledgement that some people do have “knowledge,” in the limited, and less important, sense of techne, as in the case of the craftsmen he mentions in the Apology (22c-e). To know how to make a musical instrument is surely a type of knowledge, but it falls into an altogether different category than knowledge of how to live one’s life, which was the main Socratic, and Stoic, concern.
Here is how Cicero beautifully summarizes the point, in his On the Nature of the Gods (II.153, remember, of course, that for the Stoics gods = nature = the cosmic web of cause and effect):
“Such matters [i.e., observation of the heavens] allow the mind to attain knowledge of the gods, and this gives rise to piety, with which justice and the other virtues are closely linked. These virtues are the basis of the good life, which is similar and equivalent to that enjoyed by the gods; it yields to them only in their immortality, which has no relevance to living well.”